WASHINGTON -- Let's see if we can have a reasoned discussion about end-of-life counseling.
We might start by asking Sarah Palin to leave the room. I've got nothing against her. She's a remarkable political talent. But there are no "death panels" in the Democratic health care bills, and to say that there are is to debase the debate.
We also have to tell the defenders of the notorious Section 1233 of H.R. 3200 that it is not quite as benign as they pretend. To offer government reimbursement to any doctor who gives end-of-life counseling -- whether or not the patient asked for it -- is to create an incentive for such a chat.
What do you think such a chat would be like? Do you think the doctor will go on and on about the fantastic new million-dollar high-tech gizmo that can prolong the patient's otherwise hopeless condition for another six months? Or do you think he's going to talk about -- as the bill specifically spells out -- hospice care and palliative care and other ways of letting go of life?
No, say the defenders. It's just that we want the doctors to talk to you about putting in place a living will and other such instruments. Really? Then consider the actual efficacy of a living will. When you are old, infirm and lying in the ICU with pseudomonas pneumonia and deciding whether to (a) go through the long antibiotic treatment or (b) allow what used to be called "the old man's friend" to take you away, the doctor will ask you at that time what you want for yourself -- no matter what piece of paper you signed five years ago.
You are told constantly how very important it is to write your living will years in advance. But the relevant question is what you desire at the end -- when facing death -- not what you felt sometime in the past when you were hale and hearty and sitting in your lawyer's office barely able to contemplate a life of pain and diminishment.
Well, as pain and diminishment enter your life as you age, your calculations change and your tolerance for suffering increases. In the ICU, you might have a new way of looking at things.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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